By John Bohnenkamp
IOWA CITY — It’s quite the luxury when you can keep a national player-of-the-year candidate on the bench for almost 11 minutes, and still beat your in-state rival by 28 points.
Fran McCaffery doesn’t like to play someone with two first-half fouls. Not even Luka Garza.
Oh sure, at some point during that 10-minute, 48-second stretch of the first half of Friday’s game against Iowa State, McCaffery, Iowa’s coach, toyed with the idea of putting Garza, the 6-foot-11 center who is the nation’s second-leading scorer, back in the game with two fouls.
Then he saw what the rest of the Hawkeyes were doing.
Jack Nunge, the 6-foot-11 complement to Garza, was having a 15-point, 8-rebound half. Joe Wieskamp was scoring 12 points. Connor McCaffery, the coach’s son, had six points and five rebounds.
Iowa was leading by 10 points when Garza went out. The Hawkeyes would lead by 14 later in the half, 11 at halftime.
Then a smoldering Garza went off in the second half, scoring 25 of his game-high 34 points, and Iowa had a 105-77 win.
Iowa, ranked No. 3 in the nation, is 5-0 now. The Hawkeyes won their third consecutive game in this rivalry series, their longest streak since a span of three wins from 1988-90.
It’s a complete team, if you haven’t figured it out by now, and it showed when Garza was doing some heel-cooling in his assigned seat in the first row of Iowa’s bench.
McCaffery grasps the luxury he has with this roster. And so maybe it’s not easy to sit your star, but you have the confidence that someone else steps up.
“Yeah, you know, I always want my guys to be able to play without being tentative,” McCaffery said. “And as long as we were doing OK I was going to leave (Garza) out a little longer, put him back in if we really have to.
“I knew we were getting quality minutes from (freshman) Keegan (Murray) and Patrick (McCaffery). Connor was playing really well. Came back and helped us against the pressure. So I felt like where were OK.”
Now, it did get a little tense. The Cyclones went on a 15-2 run after Garza went out to take a 32-29 lead. Iowa answered by scoring nine of the next 11 points.
Then, leading 38-36, the Hawkeyes scored 12 consecutive points — four points each from Nunge, Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery.
“It’s the next man up,” Nunge said. “That’s something our team has really taken a hold of this year. If it happens to me, if it happens to anybody, we’ve got good players on the bench who can step up.”
“Obviously, it’s a loss (not having Garza),” Wieskamp said. “Jack came in and filled the ‘5’ spot, and was dominant the whole half.”
Fran McCaffery has raved about Nunge, but he missed the first two games of this season because of the death of his father. All he’s done since his return is average 13 points and six rebounds in three games.
“He was awesome, but I have been saying it for four years,” McCaffery said. “The kid is really good. That’s what he does. He makes jumpers, he blocks shots, he’s smart, he’s in the right place, he rebounds in traffic, he can handle it and pass it.
“He’s just a terrific player, and we needed him. Luka is in foul trouble. He started the game really well but then he gets in foul trouble. Somebody has got to step up and (Nunge) sure did.”
“Nunge,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said, “kicked our butts in the first half.”
Nunge would finish this game with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“Seventeen and 10, those are impressive numbers,” Wieskamp said. “And he can do that night in and night out.”
Garza sat with little hint of anger on the bench during this time, but he wasn’t happy.
“I definitely was a little bit frustrated,” Garza said. “Getting ticky-tack fouls is unlike me. And it was just upsetting. I wanted to get out there and just kind of let loose.”
Garza started the second half by scoring four points in a quick nine-point burst by the Hawkeyes. And then he got his third foul.
Back to the bench. But not for long.
Garza came back less than 4 1/2 minutes later, and made up for lost time. He hit four consecutive 3-pointers, and Iowa was up 80-55.
Garza was 10-for-10 from the field in the second half, 5-of-5 in 3-pointers. He got all of his points for the game in just 16 minutes, 35 seconds of court time, the most points scored by a Division I player who played less than 20 minutes in a game over the last 25 seasons.
“I was able to hit a couple, and then I felt it the rest of the time I was out there,” Garza said.
“He’s been shooting it really well. It’s not like it’s a secret,” Fran McCaffery said. “But we really were looking for him today once he got going. The beautiful thing about him is he can score inside, he can score outside, he scores wherever you put him. And our plan was to move him around a little bit and give him that opportunity. A lot of people crowd him inside, so you pop him out and then he can make a move from there or shoot it from there.
“Tonight he was on fire. He’s got a great stroke and he really works on it. So it’s great to see a guy that works that hard have that kind of success.”
The Hawkeyes pulled away to beat North Carolina on Tuesday night, and then vanquished a rival, all in one week. In different ways — they had 17 3-pointers against the Tar Heels — they’ve shown that this is a roster of perfect fits, led by a consensus All-American who played the role of spectator for longer than he wanted.
He liked what he saw.
“Several guys got hot at different points,” Garza said, “and we’re just that kind of team.”
It’s quite the luxury to have.
Photo: Luka Garza gestures after hitting a 3-pointer in Friday’s win over Iowa State. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)